Stella thought she’d made up a lie on the spot, asking her childhood friend if he remembered the strange public broadcast TV show with the unsettling host she and all the neighborhood kids appeared on years ago. But he does remember. And so does her mom. Why doesn’t Stella? The more she investigates the show and the grip it has on her hometown, the eerier the mystery grows.
In his last years, Marco’s older brother Denny had become one of those people whose possessions swallowed them entirely. The kind they made documentaries about, the kind people staged interventions for, the kind people made excuses not to visit, and who stopped going out, and who were spoken of in sighs and silences. Those were the things Stella thought about after Denny died, and those were the reasons why, after eyeing the four other people at the funeral, she offered to help Marco clean out the house.
“Are you sure?” Marco asked. “You barely even knew him. It’s been thirty years since you saw him last.”
Marco’s husband, Justin, elbowed Marco in the ribs. “Take her up on it. I’ve got to get home tomorrow and you could use help.”
“I don’t mind. Denny was nice to me,” Stella said, and then added, “But I’d be doing it to help you.”
The first part was a lie, the second part true. Denny had been the weird older brother who was always there when their friends hung out at Marco’s back in high school, always lurking with a notebook and a furtive expression. She remembered Marco going out of his way to try to include Denny, Marco’s admiration wrapped in disappointment, his slow slide into embarrassment.
She and Marco had been good friends then, but she hadn’t kept up with anyone from high school. She had no excuse; social media could reconnect just about anyone at any time. She wasn’t sure what it said about her or them that nobody had tried to communicate.
On the first night of her visit with her parents, her mother had said, “Your friend Marco’s brother died this week,” and Stella had suddenly been overwhelmed with remorse for having let that particular friendship lapse. Even more so when she read the obituary her mother had clipped, and she realized Marco’s parents had died a few years before. That was why she went to the funeral and that was why she volunteered.
“I’d like to help,” she said.
Two days later, she arrived at the house wearing clothes from a bag her mother had never gotten around to donating: jeans decades out of style and dappled with paint, treadworn gym shoes, and a baggy, age-stretched T-shirt from the Tim Burton Batman. She wasn’t self-conscious about the clothes—they made sense for deep cleaning—but there was something surreal about the combination of these particular clothes and this particular door.
“I can’t believe you still have that T-shirt,” Marco said when he stepped out onto the stoop. “Mine disintegrated. Do you remember we all skipped school to go to the first showing?”
“Yeah. I didn’t even know my mom still had it. I thought she’d thrown it out years ago.”
“Cool—and thanks for doing this. I told myself I wouldn’t ask anybody, but if someone offered I’d take them up on it. Promise me you won’t think less of me for the way this looks? Our parents gave him the house. I tried to help him when I visited, but he didn’t really let me, and he made it clear if I pushed too hard I wouldn’t be welcome anymore.”
Stella nodded. “I promise.”
He handed her a pair of latex gloves and a paper mask to cover her mouth and nose; she considered for the first time how bad it might be. She hadn’t even really registered that he had squeezed through a cracked door and greeted her outside. The lawn was manicured, the flower beds mulched and weeded and ready for the spring that promised to erupt at any moment, if winter ever agreed to depart. The shutters sported fresh white paint.
Which was why she was surprised when Marco cracked the door again to enter, leaving only enough room for her to squeeze through as she followed. Something was piled behind the door. Also beside the door, in front of the door, and in every available space in the entranceway. A narrow path led forward to the kitchen, another into the living room, another upstairs.
“Oh,” she said.
He glanced back at her. “It’s not too late to back out. You didn’t know what you were signing up for.”
“I didn’t,” she admitted. “But it’s okay. Do you have a game plan?”
“Dining room, living room, rec room, bedrooms, in that order. I have no clue how long any room will take, so whatever we get done is fine. Most of what you’ll find is garbage, which can go into bags I’ll take to the dumpster in the yard. Let me know if you see anything you think I might care about. We should probably work in the same room, anyhow, since I don’t want either of us dying under a pile. That was all I thought about while I cleaned a path through the kitchen to get to the dumpster: If I get buried working in here alone, nobody will ever find me.”
“Dining room it is, then.” She tried to inject enthusiasm into her voice, or at least moral support.
It was strange seeing a house where she had spent so much time reduced to such a fallen state. She didn’t think she’d have been able to say where a side table or a bookcase had stood, but there they were, in the deepest strata, and she remembered.
They’d met here to go to prom, ten of them. Marco’s father had photographed the whole group together, only saying once, “In my day, people went to prom with dates,” and promptly getting shushed by Marco’s mother. Denny had sat on the stairs and watched them, omnipresent notebook in his hands. It hadn’t felt weird until Marco told him to go upstairs, and then suddenly it had gone from just another family member watching the festivities to something more unsettling.
She and Marco went through the living room to the dining room. A massive table still dominated the room, though it was covered with glue sticks and paintbrushes and other art supplies. Every other surface in the room held towering piles, but the section demarcated by paint-smeared newspaper suggested Denny had actually used the table.
She smelled the kitchen from ten feet away. Her face must have shown it, because Marco said, “I’m serious. Don’t go in there unless you have to. I’ve got all the windows open and three fans blowing but it’s not enough. I thought we could start in here because it might actually be easiest. You can do the sideboard and the china cabinets and I’ll work on clearing the table. Two categories: garbage and maybe-not-garbage, which includes personal stuff and anything you think might be valuable. Dying is shockingly expensive.”
Stella didn’t know if that referred to Denny’s death—she didn’t know how he’d died—or to the funeral, and she didn’t want to ask. She wondered why Marco had chosen the impersonal job with no decisions involved, but when she came to one of his grandmother’s porcelain teacups, broken by the weight of everything layered on top of it, she thought she understood. He didn’t necessarily remember what was under here, but seeing it damaged would be harder than if Stella just threw it in a big black bag. The items would jog memories; their absence would not.
She also came to understand the purpose of the latex gloves. The piles held surprises. Papers layered on papers layered on toys and antiques, then, suddenly, mouse turds or a cat’s hairball or the flattened tendril of some once-green plant or something moldering and indefinable. Denny had apparently smoked, too; every few layers, a full ashtray made an appearance. The papers were for the most part easy discards: the news and obituary sections of the local weekly newspaper, going back ten, fifteen, thirty-five years, some with articles cut out.
Here and there, she came across something that had survived: a silver platter, a resilient teapot, a framed photo. She placed those on the table in the space Marco had cleared. For a while it felt like she was just shifting the mess sideways, but eventually she began to recognize progress in the form of the furniture under the piles. When Marco finished, he dragged her garbage bags through the kitchen and out to the dumpster, then started sifting through the stuff she’d set aside. He labeled three boxes: “keep,” “donate,” and “sell.” Some items took him longer than others; she decided not to ask how he made the choices. If he wanted to talk, he’d talk.
“Stop for lunch?” Marco asked when the table at last held only filled boxes.
Stella’s stomach had started grumbling an hour before; she was more than happy to take a break. She reached instinctively for her phone to check the time, then stopped herself and peeled the gloves off the way she’d learned in first aid in high school, avoiding contamination. “I need to wash my hands.”
“Do it at the deli on the corner. You don’t want to get near any of these sinks.”
The deli on the corner hadn’t been there when they were kids. What had been? A real estate office or something else that hadn’t registered in her teenage mind. Now it was a hipster re-creation of a deli, really, complete with order numbers from a wall dispenser. A butcher with a waxed mustache took their order.
“Did he go to school with us?” Stella whispered to Marco, watching the butcher.
He nodded. “Chris Bethel. He was in the class between us and Denny, except he had a different name back then.”
In that moment, she remembered Chris Bethel, pre-transition, playing Viola in Twelfth Night like a person who knew what it was to be shipwrecked on a strange shore. Good for him.
While they waited, she ducked into the bathroom to scrub her hands. She smelled like the house now, and hoped nobody else noticed.
Marco had already claimed their sandwiches, in plastic baskets and waxed paper, and chosen a corner table away from the other customers. They took their first few bites without speaking. Marco hadn’t said much all morning, and Stella had managed not to give in to her usual need to fill silences, but now she couldn’t help it.
“Where do you live? And how long have you and Justin been together?”
“Outside Boston,” he said. “And fifteen years. How about you?”
“Chicago. Divorced. One son, Cooper. I travel a lot. I work sales for a coffee distributor.”
Even as she spoke, she hated that she’d said it. None of it was true. She had always done that, inventing things when she had no reason to lie, just because they sounded interesting, or because it gave her a thrill. If he had asked to see pictures of her nonexistent son Cooper, she’d have nothing to show. Not to mention she had no idea what a coffee distributor did.
Marco didn’t seem to notice, or else he knew it wasn’t true and filed it away as proof they had drifted apart for a reason. They finished their sandwiches in silence.
“Tackle the living room next?” Marco asked. “Or the rec room?”
“Rec room,” she said. It was farther from the kitchen.
Farther from the kitchen, but the basement litter pans lent a different odor and trapped it in the windowless space. She sighed and tugged the mask up.
Marco did the same. “The weird thing is I haven’t found a cat. I’m hoping maybe it was indoor-outdoor or something . . .”
Stella didn’t know how to respond, so she said, “Hmm,” and resolved to be extra careful when sticking her hands into anything.
The built-in bookshelves on the back wall held tubs and tubs of what looked like holiday decorations.
“What do you want to do with holiday stuff?” Stella pulled the nearest box forward on the shelf and peered inside. Halloween and Christmas, mostly, but all mixed together, so reindeer ornaments and spider lights negotiated a fragile peace.
“I’d love to say toss it, but I think we need to take everything out, in case.”
He tossed her a sealed package to inspect. It held two droid ornaments, like R2-D2 but different colors. “Collector’s item, mint condition. I found it a minute ago, under a big ball of tinsel and plastic reindeer. It’s like this all over the house: valuable stuff hidden with the crap. A prize in every fucking box.”
The size of the undertaking was slowly dawning on her. “How long are you here for?”
“I’ve got a good boss. She said I could work from here until I had all Denny’s stuff in order. I was thinking a week, but it might be more like a month, given everything . . .”
“A month! We made good progress today, though . . .”
“You haven’t seen upstairs. Or the garage. There’s a lot, Stella. The dining room was probably the easiest other than the kitchen, which will be one hundred percent garbage.”
“That’s if he didn’t stash more collectibles in the flour.”
Marco blanched. “Oh god. How did I not think of that?”
Part of her wanted to offer to help again, but she didn’t think she could stomach the stench for two days in a row, and she was supposed to be spending time with her parents, who already said she didn’t come home enough. She wanted to offer, but she didn’t want him to take her up on it. “I’ll come back if I can.”
He didn’t respond, since that was obviously a lie. They returned to the task at hand: the ornaments, the decorations, the toys, the games, the stacks of DVDs and VHS tapes and records and CDs and cassettes, the prizes hidden not in every box, but in enough to make the effort worthwhile. Marco was right that the dining room had been easier. He’d decided to donate all the cassettes, DVDs, and videotapes, but said the vinyl might actually be worth something. She didn’t know anything about records, so she categorized them as playable and not, removing each from its sleeve to examine for warp and scratches. It was tedious work.
It took two hours for her to find actual equipment Denny might have played any of the media on: a small television on an Ikea TV stand, a stereo and turntable on the floor, then another television behind the first.
It was an old set, built into a wooden cabinet that dwarfed the actual screen. She hadn’t seen one like this in years; it reminded her of her grandparents. She tried to remember if it had been down here when they were kids.
Something about it—the wooden cabinet, or maybe the dial—made her ask, “Do you remember The Uncle Bob Show?”
Which of course he didn’t, nobody did, she had made it up on the spot, like she often did.
Which was why it was so weird that Marco said, “Yeah! And the way he looked straight into the camera. It was like he saw me, specifically me. Scared me to death, but he said, ‘Come back next week,’ and I always did because I felt like he’d get upset otherwise.”
As he said it, Stella remembered too. The way Uncle Bob looked straight into the camera, and not in a friendly Mr. Rogers way. Uncle Bob was the anti-Mr. Rogers. A cautionary uncle, not predatory, but not kind.
“It was a local show,” she said aloud, testing for truth.
Marco nodded. “Filmed at the public broadcast station. Denny was in the audience a few times.”
Stella pictured Denny as she had known him, a hulking older teen. Marco must have realized the disconnect, because he added, “I mean when he was little. Seven or eight, maybe? The first season? That would make us five. Yeah, that makes sense, since I was really jealous, but my mom said you had to be seven to go on it.”
Stella resized the giant to a large boy. Audience didn’t feel like exactly the right word, but she couldn’t remember why.
Marco crossed the room to dig through the VHS tapes they’d discarded. “Here.”
It took him a few minutes to connect the VCR to the newer television. The screen popped and crackled as he hit play.
The show started with an oddly familiar instrumental theme song. The Uncle Bob Show appeared in block letters, then the logo faded and the screen went black. A door opened, and Stella realized it wasn’t dead-screen black but a matte black room. The studio was painted black, with no furniture except a single black wooden chair.
Children spilled through the door, running straight for the camera—no, running straight for the secret compartments in the floor, all filled with toys. In that environment, the colors of the toys and the children’s clothes were shocking, delicious, welcoming, warm. Blocks, train sets, plastic animals. That was why audience had bothered her. They weren’t an audience; they were half the show, half the camera’s focus. After a chaotic moment where they sorted who got possession of what, they settled in to play.
Uncle Bob entered a few minutes later. He was younger than Stella expected, his hair dark and full, his long face unlined. He walked with a ramrod spine and a slight lean at the hips, his arms clasped behind him giving him the look of a flightless bird. He made his way to the chair, somehow avoiding the children at his feet even though he was already looking straight into the camera.
He sat. Stella had the eeriest feeling, even now, that his eyes focused on her. “How on earth did this guy get a TV show?”
“Right? That’s Denny there.” Marco paused the tape and pointed at a boy behind and to the right of the chair. Her mental image hadn’t been far off; Denny was bigger than all the other kids. He had a train car in each hand, and was holding the left one out to a little girl. The image of him playing well with others surprised Stella; she’d figured he’d always been a loner. She opened her mouth to say that, then closed it again. It was fine for Marco to say whatever he wanted about his brother, but it might not be appropriate for her to bring it up.
Marco pressed play again. The girl took the train from Denny and smiled. In the foreground, Uncle Bob started telling a story. Stella had forgotten the storytelling, too. That was the whole show: children doing their thing, and Uncle Bob telling completely unrelated stories. He paid little attention to the kids, though they sometimes stopped playing to listen to him.
The story was weird. Something about a boy buried alive in a hillside—“planted,” in his words—who took over the entire hillside, like a weed, and spread for miles around.
Stella shook her head. “That’s fucked up. If I had a kid I wouldn’t let them watch this. Nightmare city.”
Marco gave her a look. “I thought you said you had a kid?”
“I mean if I’d had a kid back when this was on.” She was usually more careful with the lying game. Why had she said she had a son, anyway? She’d be found out the second Marco ran into her parents.
It was a dumb game, really. She didn’t even remember when she’d started playing it. College, maybe. The first chance she’d had to reinvent herself, so why not do it wholesale? The rules were simple: Never lie about something anyone could verify independently; never lose track of the lies; keep them consistent and believable. That was why in college she’d claimed she’d made the varsity volleyball team in high school, but injured her knee so spectacularly in practice she’d never been able to play any sport again, and she’d once flashed an AP physics class, and she’d auditioned for the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament but been cut when she accidentally said “fuck” to Alex Trebek. Then she just had to live up to her reputation as someone who’d lived so much by eighteen that she could coast on her former cool.
Uncle Bob’s story was still going. “They dug me out of the hillside on my thirteenth birthday. It’s good to divide rhizomes to give them room to grow.”
“Did he say ‘me’?”
“A lot of his stories went like that, Stella. They started out like fairy tales, but somewhere in the middle he shifted into first person. I don’t know if he had a bad writer or what.”
“And did he say ‘rhizome’? Who says ‘rhizome’ to seven-year-olds?” Stella hit the stop button. “Okay. Back to work. I remember now. That’s plenty.”
Marco frowned. “We can keep working, but I’d like to keep this on in the background now that we’ve found it. It’s nice to see Denny. That Denny, especially.”
That Denny: Denny frozen in time, before he got weird.
Stella started on the boxes in the back, leaving the stuff near the television to Marco. Snippets of story drifted her way, about the boy’s family, but much, much older than when they’d buried him. His brothers were fathers now, their children the nieces and nephews of the teenager they’d dug from the hillside. Then the oddly upbeat theme song twice in a row—that episode’s end and another’s beginning.
“Marco?” she asked. “How long did this run?”
“I dunno. A few years, at least.”
“Did you ever go on it? Like Denny?”
“No. I . . . hmm. I guess by the time I’d have been old enough, Denny had started acting strange, and my parents liked putting us into activities we could both do at the same time.”
They kept working. The next Uncle Bob story that drifted her way centered on a child who got lost. Stella kept waiting for it to turn into a familiar children’s story, but it didn’t. Just a kid who got lost and when she found her way home she realized she’d arrived back without her body, and her parents didn’t even notice the difference.
“Enough,” Stella said from across the room. “That was enough to give me nightmares, and I’m an adult. Fuck. Watch more after I leave if you want.”
“Okay. Time to call it quits, anyway. You’ve been here like nine hours.”
She didn’t argue. She waited until they got out the front door to peel off the mask and gloves.
“It was good to hang out with you,” she said.
“You, too. Look me up if you ever get to Boston.”
She couldn’t tell him to do the same with Chicago, so she said, “Will do.” She realized she’d never asked what he did for a living, but it seemed like an awkward time. It wasn’t until after she’d walked away that she realized he’d said goodbye as if she wasn’t returning the next day. She definitely wasn’t, especially if he kept binging that creepy show.
When she returned to her parents’ house she made a beeline for the shower. After twenty minutes’ scrubbing, she still couldn’t shake the smell. She dumped the clothes in the garbage instead of the laundry and took the bag to the outside bin, where it could stink as much as it needed to stink.
Her parents were sitting on the screened porch out front, as they often did once the evenings got warm enough, both with glasses of iced tea on the wrought iron table between them as if it were already summer. Her mother had a magazine open on her lap—she still subscribed to all her scientific journals, though she’d retired years before—and her father was solving a math puzzle on his tablet, which Stella could tell by his intense concentration.
“That bad?” Her mother lifted an eyebrow at her as she returned from the garbage.
She went into the house and poured herself a glass to match her parents’. Something was roasting in the oven, and the kitchen was hot and smelled like onions and butter. She closed her eyes and pressed the glass against her forehead, letting the oven and the ice battle over her body temperature, then returned to sit on the much cooler porch, picking the empty chair with the better view of the dormant garden.
“Grab the cushion from the other chair if you’re going to sit in that one,” her father said.
She did as he suggested. “I don’t see why you don’t have cushions for both chairs. What if you have a couple over? Do they have to fight over who gets the comfortable seat versus who gets the view?”
He shrugged. “Nobody’s complained.”
They generally operated on a complaint system. Maybe that was where she’d gotten the habit of lies and exaggeration: She’d realized early that only extremes elicited a response.
“How did dinner look?” he asked.
“I didn’t check. It smelled great, if that counts for anything.”
He grunted, the sound both a denial and the effort of getting up, and went inside. Stella debated taking his chair, but it wasn’t worth the scene. A wasp hovered near the screen and she watched it for a moment, glad it was on the other side.
“Hey, Ma, do you remember The Uncle Bob Show?”
“Of course.” She closed her magazine and hummed something that sounded half like Uncle Bob’s theme song and half like The Partridge Family theme. Stella hadn’t noticed the similarity between the two tunes; it was a ridiculously cheery theme song for such a dark show.
“Who was that guy? Why did they give him a kids’ show?”
“The public television station had funding trouble and dumped all the shows they had to pay for—we had to get cable for you to watch Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. They had all these gaps to fill in their schedule, so anybody with a low budget idea could get on. That one lasted longer than most—four or five years, I think.”
“And nobody said, ‘That’s some seriously weird shit?’”
“Oh, we all did, but someone at the station argued there were plenty of peace-and-love shows around, and some people like to be scared, and it’s not like it was full of violence or sex, and just because a show had kids in it didn’t mean it was a kids’ show.”
“They expected adults to watch? That’s even weirder. What time was it on?”
“Oh, I don’t remember. Saturday night? Saturday morning?”
Huh. Maybe he was more like those old monster movie hosts. “That’s deeply strange, even for the eighties. And who was the guy playing Uncle Bob? I tried looking it up on IMDB, but there’s no page. Not on Wikipedia either. Our entire world is fueled by nostalgia, but there’s nothing on this show. Where’s the online fan club, the community of collectors? Anything.”
Her mother frowned, clearly still stuck on trying to dredge up a name. She shook her head. “Definitely Bob, a real Bob, but I can’t remember his last name. He must’ve lived somewhere nearby, because I ran into him at the drugstore and the hardware store a few times while the show was on the air.”
Stella tried to picture that strange man in a drugstore, looming behind her in line, telling her stories about the time he picked up photos from a vacation but when he looked at them, he was screaming in every photo. If he were telling that story on the show, he’d end it with, “and then you got home from the drugstore with your photos, but when you looked at them, you were screaming in every photo too.” Great. Now she’d creeped herself out without his help.
“How did I not have nightmares?”
“We talked about that possibility—all the mothers—but you weren’t disturbed. None of you kids ever complained. It was a nice break, to chat with the other moms while you all played in such a contained space.”
There was a vast difference between “never complained” and “weren’t disturbed” that Stella would have liked to unpack, but she fixated on a different detail. “Contained space—you mean while we watched TV, right?”
“No, dear. The studio. It looked much larger on television, but the cameras formed this nice ring around three sides, and you all understood you weren’t supposed to leave during that half hour except for a bathroom emergency. You all played and we sat around and had coffee. It was the only time in my week when I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be doing something else.”
It took Stella a few seconds to realize the buzzing noise in her head wasn’t the wasp on the screen. “What are you talking about? I was on the show?”
“Nearly every kid in town was on it at some point. Everyone except Marco, because his brother was acting up by the time you two were old enough, and Celeste pulled Denny and enrolled both boys in karate instead.”
“But me? Ma, I don’t remember that at all.” The idea that she didn’t know something about herself that others knew bothered her more than she could express. “You aren’t making this up?”
“Why would I lie? I’m sure there are other things you don’t remember. Getting lice in third grade?”
“You shaved my head. Of course I remember. The whole class got it, but I was the only one whose mother shaved her head.”
“I didn’t have time to comb through it, honey. Something more benign? Playing at Tamar Siegel’s house?”
“Who’s Tamar Siegel?”
“See? The Siegels moved to town for a year when you were in second grade. They had a jungle gym that you loved. You didn’t think much of the kid, but you liked her yard and her dog. We got on well with her parents; I was sad when they left.”
Stella flashed on a tall backyard slide and a golden retriever barking at her when she climbed the ladder and left it below. A memory she’d never have dredged up unprompted. Nothing special about it: a person whose face she couldn’t recall, a backyard slide, an experience supplanted by other experiences. Generic kid, generic fun. A placeholder memory.
“Okay, I get that there are things that didn’t stick with me, and things that I think I remember once you remind me, but it doesn’t explain why I don’t remember a blacked-out TV studio or giant cameras or a creepy host. You forget the things that don’t stand out, sure, but this seems, I don’t know, formative.”
Her mother shrugged. “You’re making a big deal of nothing.”
“Nothing? Did you listen to his stories?”
“Now I know you didn’t listen. He was telling horror stories to seven-year-olds.”
“Fairy tales are horror stories, and like I said, you didn’t complain. You mostly played with the toys.”
“What about the kids at home watching? The stories were the focus if you weren’t in the studio.”
“If they were as bad as you say, hopefully parents paid attention and watched with their children and whatever else the experts these days say comprises good parenting. You’re looking through a prism of now, baby. Have you ever seen early Sesame Street? I remember a sketch where a puppet with no facial features goes to a human for ‘little girl eyes.’ You and your friends watched shows, and if they scared you, you turned them off. You played outside. You cut your Halloween candy in half to make sure there were no razor blades inside. If you want to tell me I’m a terrible parent for putting you on that show with your friends, feel free, but since it took you thirty-five years to bring this up, I’m going to assume it didn’t wreck your life.”
Her father rang the dinner gong inside the house, a custom her parents found charming and Stella had always considered overkill in a family as small as theirs. She and her mother stood. Their glasses were still mostly full, the melting ice having replaced what they’d sipped.
She continued thinking over dinner, while she related everything she and Marco had unearthed to her mildly curious parents, and after, while scrubbing the casserole dish. What her mother said was true: She hadn’t been driven to therapy by the show. She didn’t remember any nightmares. It just felt strange to be missing something so completely, not to mention the questions that arose about what else she could be missing if she could be missing that. It was an unpleasant feeling.
After dinner, while her parents watched some reality show, she pulled out a photo album from the early eighties. Her family hadn’t been much for photographic documentation, so there was just the one, chronological and well labeled, commemorating Stella at the old school playground before they pulled it out and replaced it with safer equipment, at a zoo, at the Independence Day parade. It was true, she didn’t recall those particular moments, but she believed she’d been there. The Uncle Bob Show felt different. The first time she’d uttered the show’s name, she’d thought she’d made it up.
She texted Marco: “Did Denny have all the Uncle Bob episodes on tape or only the ones he was in? Thanks!” She added a smiley face then erased it before she hit send. It felt falsely cheery instead of appreciative. His brother had just died.
She settled on the couch beside her parents. While they watched TV, she surfed the web looking for information about The Uncle Bob Show, but found nothing. In the era of kittens with Twitter accounts and sandwiches with their own Instagrams and fandoms for every conceivable property, it seemed impossible for something to be so utterly missing.
Not that it deserved a fandom; she just figured everything had one. Where were the ironic logo T-shirts? Where was the episode wiki explaining what happened in every Uncle Bob story? Where were the “Whatever happened to?” articles? The tell-alls by the kids or the director or the camera operator? The easy answer was that it was such a terrible show, or such a small show, that nobody cared. She didn’t care either; she just needed to know. Not the same thing.
The next morning, she drove out to the public television station on the south end of town. She’d passed it so many times, but until now she wouldn’t have said she’d ever been inside. Nothing about the interior rang a bell either, though it looked like it had been redone fairly recently, with an airy design that managed to say both modern and trapped in time.
“Can I help you?” The receptionist’s trifocals reflected her computer’s spreadsheet back at Stella. A phone log by her right hand was covered with sketched faces; the sketches were excellent. Grace Hernandez, according to her name plaque.
Stella smiled. “I probably should have called, but I wondered if you have archives of shows produced here a long time ago? My mother wants a video of a show I was on as a kid and I didn’t want her to have to come over here for nothing.”
Even while she said it, she wondered why she had to lie. Wouldn’t it have been just as easy to say she wanted to see it herself? She’d noticed an older receptionist and decided to play on her sympathies, but there was no reason to assume her own story wasn’t compelling.
“Normally we’d have you fill out a request form, but it’s a slow day. I can see if someone is here to help you.” Grace picked up a phone and called one number, then disconnected and tried another. Someone answered, because she repeated Stella’s story, then turned back to her. “He’ll be out in a sec.”
She gestured to a glass-and-wood waiting area, and Stella sat. A flat screen overhead played what Stella assumed was their station, on mute, and a few issues of a public media trade magazine called Current were piled neatly on the low table.
A small man—a little person? Was that the right term?—came around the corner into reception. He was probably around her age, but she would have remembered him if he’d gone to school with her.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Jeff Stills. Grace says you’re looking for a show?”
“Yes, my mother—”
“Grace said. Let’s see what we can do.”
He handed her a laminated guest pass on a lanyard and waited while she put it on, then led her through a security door and down a long, low-ceilinged corridor, punctuated by framed stills from various shows. No Uncle Bob. “Have you been here before?”
“When I was a kid.”
“Hmm. I’ll bet it looks pretty different. This whole back area was redone around 2005, after the roof damage. Then the lobby about five years ago.”
She hadn’t had any twinges of familiarity, but at least that explained some of it. She’d forgotten about the blizzard that wrecked the roof; she’d been long gone by then.
“Hopefully whatever you’re looking for wasn’t among the stuff that got damaged by the storm. What are you looking for?”
“The Uncle Bob Show. Do you know it?”
“Only by name. I’ve seen the tapes on the shelf, but in the ten years I’ve been here, nobody has ever asked for a clip. Any good?”
“No.” Stella didn’t hesitate. “It’s like those late-night horror hosts, Vampira or Elvira or whatever, except they forgot to run a movie and instead let the host blather on.”
They came to a nondescript door. The low-ceilinged hallway had led her to expect low-ceilinged rooms, but the space they entered was more of a warehouse. A long desk cluttered with computers and various machinery occupied the front, and then the space opened into row upon row of metal shelving units. The aisles were wide enough to accommodate rolling ladders.
“We’ve been working on digitizing, but we have fifty years of material in here, and some stuff has priority.”
“Is that what you do? Digitize?”
“Nah. We have interns for that. I catalogue new material as it comes in, and find stuff for people when they need clips. Mostly staff, but sometimes for networks, local news, researchers, that kind of thing.”
“Sounds fun,” Stella said. “How did you get into the field?”
“I majored in history, but never committed enough to any one topic for academic research. Ended up at library school, and eventually moved here. It is fun! I get a little bit of everything. Like today: a mystery show.”
She followed him down the main aisle, then several aisles over, almost to the back wall. He pointed at some boxes above her head.
“Wow,” she said. “Do you know where everything is without looking it up?”
“Well, it’s alphabetical, so yeah, but also they’re next to Underground, which I get a lot of requests for. Do you know what year you need?”
“1982? My mother couldn’t remember exactly, but that’s the year I turned seven.”
Jeff disappeared and returned pushing a squeaking ladder along its track. He climbed up for the “Uncle Bob Show 1982” box. It looked like there were five years’ worth, 1980 to 1985. She followed him back toward the door, where he pointed her to an office chair.
“We have strict protocols for handling media that hasn’t been backed up yet. If you tell me which tapes you want to watch, I’ll queue them up for you.”
“Hmm. Well, my birthday is in July, so let’s pick one in the last quarter of the year first, to see if I’m in there.”
“You don’t know if you are?”
She didn’t want to admit she didn’t remember. “I just don’t know when.”
He handed her a pair of padded headphones and rummaged in the box. She’d been expecting VHS tapes, but these looked like something else—Betamax, she guessed.
The show’s format was such that she didn’t have to watch much to figure out if she was in it or not. The title card came on, then the episode’s children rushed in. She didn’t see herself. She wondered again if this was a joke on her mother’s part.
“Wait—what was the date on this one?”
Jeff studied the label on the box. “October ninth.”
“I’m sorry. That’s my mother’s birthday. There’s no way she stood around in a television studio that day. Maybe the next week?”
He ejected the tape and put it back in its box and put in another, but that one obviously had some kind of damage, all static.
“Third time’s the charm,” he said, going for the next tape. He seemed to believe it himself, because he dragged another chair over and plugged in a second pair of headphones. “Do you mind?”
She shook her head and rolled her chair slightly to the right to give him a better angle. The title card appeared.
“It’s a good thing nobody knows about this show or they’d have been sued over this theme song,” he said.
Stella didn’t answer. She was busy watching the children. She recognized the first few kids: Lee Pool first, a blond beanpole; poor Dan Heller; Addie Chapel, whose mother had been everyone’s pediatrician.
And then there she was, little Stella Gardiner, one of the last through the door. She wasn’t used to competing for toys, so maybe she didn’t know she needed to get in early, or maybe they were assigned an order behind the scenes. She’d thought seeing herself on screen would jog her memory, give her the studio or the stories or the backstage snacks, but she still had no recollection. She pointed at herself on the monitor for Jeff’s benefit, to show they’d found her. He gave her a thumbs-up.
Little Stella seemed to know where she was going, even if she wasn’t first to get there. Lee Pool already had the T. rex, but she wouldn’t have cared. She’d liked the big dinosaurs, the bigger the better. She emerged from the toy pit with a matched pair. Brontosaurus, apatosaurus, whatever they called them these days. She could never wrap her head around something that large having existed. So yeah, the dinosaurs made sense—it was her, even if she still didn’t remember it.
She carried the two dinosaurs toward the set’s edge, where she collected some wooden trees and sat down. She was an only child, used to playing alone, and this clearly wasn’t her first time in this space.
The camera lost her. The focus, of course, was on Uncle Bob. She had been watching herself and missed his entrance. He sat in his chair, children playing around him. Dan Heller zoomed around the set like a satellite in orbit, a model airplane in hand.
“Once upon a time there was a little boy who wanted to go fast.” Uncle Bob started a story without waiting for anyone to pay attention.
“He liked everything fast. Cars, motorcycles, boats, airplanes. Bicycles were okay, but not the same thrill. When he rode in his father’s car, he pretended they were racing the cars beside them. Sometimes they won, but mostly somebody quit the race. His father was not a fast driver. The little boy knew that if he drove, he’d win all the races. He wouldn’t stop when he won, either. He’d keep going.
“He liked the sound of motors. He liked the way they rumbled deep enough to rattle his teeth in his head, and his bones beneath his skin; he liked the way they shut all the thinking out. He liked the smell of gasoline and the way it burned his nostrils. His family’s neighbors had motorcycles they rode on weekends, and if he played in the front yard they’d sometimes let him sit on one with them before they roared away, leaving too much quiet behind. When they drove off, he tried to recreate the sound, making as much noise as possible until his father told him to be quiet, then to shut up, then ‘For goodness sake, what does a man have to do to get some peace and quiet around here on a Saturday morning?’”
Dan paused his orbit and turned to face the storyteller. Two other kids had stopped to pay attention as well; Stella and the others continued playing on the periphery.
“The boy got his learner’s permit on the very first day he was allowed. He skipped school for it rather than wait another second. He had saved his paper route money for driving lessons and a used motorbike. As soon as he had his full license, he did what he had always wanted to do: He drove as fast as he could down the highway, past all the cars, and then he kept driving forever. The end.”
Uncle Bob shifted back in his chair as he finished. Dan watched him for a little longer, then launched himself again, circling the scattered toys and children faster than before.
Jeff sat back as well. “What kind of story was that?”
Stella frowned. “A deeply messed up one. That kid with the airplane—Dan Heller— drove off the interstate the summer after junior year. He was racing someone in the middle of the night and missed a curve.”
“Oof. Quite the coincidence.”
“Yeah . . .”
Uncle Bob started telling another story, this one about a vole living in a hole on a grassy hillside that started a conversation with the child sleeping in the hole next door.
“Do you want to watch the whole episode? Is this the one you need?”
“I think I need to look at a couple more?” She didn’t know what she was looking for. “Sorry for putting you out. I don’t mean to take up so much time.”
“It’s fine! This is interesting. The show is terrible, from any standpoint. The story was terrible, the production is terrible. I can’t even decide if this whole shtick is campy bad or bad bad. Leaning toward the latter.”
“I don’t think there’s anything redeeming,” Stella said, her mind still on Dan Heller. Did his parents remember this story? “Can we look at the next one? October 30th?”
“Coming up.” Jeff appeared to have forgotten she’d said she was looking for something specific, and she didn’t remind him, since she still couldn’t think of an appropriate detail.
Little Stella was second through the door this time, behind Tina, whose last name she didn’t remember. She paused and looked out past a camera, probably looking for her mother, then kept moving when she realized more kids were coming through behind her. Head for the toys. Claim what’s yours. Brontosaurus and T. rex and a blue whale. Whales were almost as cool as dinosaurs.
Tina had claimed a triceratops and looked like she wanted the brontosaurus. They sat down on the edge of the toy pit to negotiate. Uncle Bob watched them play, which gave Stella the eeriest feeling of being watched, even though she still felt like the kid on the screen wasn’t her.
“So what was it like?” Jeff asked, but Stella didn’t answer. Uncle Bob had started a story. He looked straight into the camera. This time it felt like he was truly looking straight at her. This was the one. She knew it.
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who didn’t know who she was. Many children don’t know who they will be, and that’s not unusual, but what was unusual in this case was that the girl was willing to trade who she was for who she could be, so she began to do just that. Little by little, she replaced herself with parts of other people she liked better. Parts of stories she wanted to live. Nobody lied like this girl. She believed her own stories so completely, she forgot which ones were true and which were false.
“If you’ve ever heard of a cuckoo bird, they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, so those birds are forced to raise them for their own. This girl was her own cuckoo, laying stories in her own head, and the heads of those around her, until even she couldn’t remember which ones were true, or if there was anything left of her.”
Uncle Bob went silent, watching the children play. After a minute, he started telling another story about the boy in the hill, and how happy he was whenever he had friends over to visit. That story ended, and a graphic appeared on the screen with an address for fan mail. Stella pulled a pen from her purse and wrote it down as the theme music played out.
“Are you sending him a letter?” The archivist had dropped his headphones and was watching her.
She shrugged. “Just curious.”
“Is this the one, then?”
He frowned. “You said you wanted a copy for your mother.”
“Yes! That would be lovely. This is the one she mentioned.”
He pulled a DVD off a bulk spindle and rewound the tape. “You didn’t say what it was like. Was he weird off camera too?”
“Yes,” she said, though she didn’t remember. “But he kept to himself. Just stayed in his dressing room until it was time to go on.”
Jeff didn’t reply, and something subtle changed about the way he interacted with her. What if there hadn’t been a dressing room? He might know. When had she gotten so sloppy with her stories? Maybe it was because she was distracted. Her mother had told the truth: She’d been on a creepy TV show of which she had no memory. And what was it? Performance art? Storytelling? Fairy tales or horror? All of the above? She thanked Jeff and left.
She had just walked into her parents’ house when Marco called. “Can you come back? There’s something I need to show you.”
She headed out to Denny’s house. She paused on the step, realizing she was in nicer clothes this time. Hopefully she wouldn’t be there long.
“Hey,” she said when Marco answered the door. Even though she braced for the odor, it hit her hard.
He waved her in, talking as he navigated the narrow path he’d cleared up the stairs. “I thought I’d work on Denny’s bedroom today, and, well . . .”
He held out an arm in the universal gesture of “go ahead,” so she entered. The room had precarious ceiling-high stacks on every surface, including the floor and bed, piles everywhere except a path to an open walk-in closet. She stepped forward.
“What is that?”
“The word I came up with was ‘shrine,’ but I don’t think that’s right.”
It was the sparest space in the house. She’d expected a dowel crammed end to end with clothes, straining under the weight, but the closet was empty except for—“shrine” was indeed the wrong word. This wasn’t worship.
The most eye-catching piece, the thing she saw first, was a hand-painted Uncle Bob doll propped in the back corner. It looked like it had been someone else first—Vincent Price, maybe. Next to it stood a bobblehead and an action figure, both mutated from other characters, and one made of clay and plant matter, seemingly from scratch. Beside those, a black leather notebook, a pile of VHS tapes, and a single DVD. Tacked to the wall behind them, portraits of Uncle Bob in paint, in colored pencil, macaroni, photo collage, in, oh god, was that cat hair? And beside those, stills from the show printed on copier paper: Uncle Bob telling a story; Uncle Bob staring straight into the camera, an assortment of children. Her own still was toward the bottom right. Marco wasn’t in any of them.
“That’s the thing that guts me.”
Stella turned, expecting to see Marco pointing to the art or the dolls, but she’d been too busy looking at those to notice the filthy pillow and blanket in the opposite corner. “He slept here?”
“It’s the only place he could have.” Marco’s voice was strangled, like he was trying not to cry.
She didn’t know what to say to make him feel better about his brother having lived liked this. She picked up the notebook and paged through it. Each page had a name block-printed on top, then a dense scrawl in black, then, in a different pen, something else. Not impossible to read, but difficult, writing crammed into every available inch, no space between words even. She remembered this notebook; it was the one teenage Denny always had on him.
“Take it,” Marco said. “Take whatever you want. I can’t do this anymore. I’m going home.”
She took the notebook and the DVD, and squeezed Marco’s arm, unsure whether he would want or accept a hug.
Her parents were out when she got back to their house, so she slipped the DVD into their machine. It didn’t work. She took it upstairs and tried it in her mother’s old desktop computer instead. The computer made a sound like a jet plane taking off, and opened a menu with one episode listed: March 13, 1980.
It started the same way all the other episodes had started. The kids, Uncle Bob. Denny was in this one; Stella had an easier time spotting him now that she knew who to look for. He went for the train set again, laying out wooden tracks alongside a kid Stella didn’t recognize.
Uncle Bob started a story. “Once upon a time, there was a boy who grew very big very quickly. He felt like a giant when he stood next to his classmates. People stopped him in hallways and told him he was going to the wrong grade’s room. His mother complained that she had to buy him new clothes constantly, and even though she did it with affection, he was too young to realize she didn’t blame him. He felt terrible about it. Tried to hide that his shoes squeezed his toes or his pants were too short again.
“His parents’ friends said, ‘Somebody’s going to be quite an athlete,’ but he didn’t feel like an athlete. More than that, he felt like he had grown so fast his head had been pushed out of his body, so he was constantly watching it from someplace just above. Messages he sent to his arms and legs took ages to get there. Everything felt small and breakable in his hands, so that when his best friend’s dog had puppies he refused to hold them, though he loved when they climbed all over him.
“The boy had a little brother. His brother was everything he wasn’t. Small, lithe, fearless. His mother told him to protect his brother, and he took that responsibility seriously. That was something that didn’t take finesse. He could do that.
“Both boys got older, but their roles didn’t change. The older brother watched his younger brother. When the smaller boy was bullied, his brother pummeled the bullies. When the younger brother made the high school varsity basketball team as a point guard his freshman year, his older brother made the team as center, even though he hated sports.
“Time passed. The older brother realized something strange. Every time he thought he had something of his own, it turned out it was his brother’s. He blinked one day and lost two entire years. How was he the older brother, the one who got new clothes, who reached new grades first, and yet still always following? Even his own story had spun out to describe him in relation to his sibling.
“And then, one day, the boy realized he had nothing at all. He was his brother’s giant shadow. He was a forward echo, a void. Nothing was his. All he could do was watch the world try to catch up with him, but he was always looking backward at it. All he could do—”
“No,” said Denny.
Stella had forgotten the kids were there, even though they were on camera the entire time. Denny had stood and walked over to where Uncle Bob was telling the story. With Uncle Bob sitting, Denny was tall enough to look him in the eye.
For the first time, Uncle Bob turned away from the camera. He assessed Denny with an unsettling smile.
“No,” Denny said again.
Now Uncle Bob glanced around as if he was no longer amused, as if someone needed to pull this child off his set. It wasn’t a tantrum, though. Denny wasn’t misbehaving, unless interrupting a story violated the rules.
Uncle Bob turned back to him. “How would you tell it?”
Denny looked less sure now.
“I didn’t think so,” said the host. “But maybe that’s enough of that story. Unless you want to tell me how you think it ends?”
Denny shook his head.
“But you know?”
Denny didn’t move.
“Maybe that’s enough. We’ll see. In any case, I have other stories to tell. We haven’t checked in on my hill today.”
Uncle Bob began to catch his audience up on the continuing adventure of the boy who’d been dug out of the hillside. The other children kept playing, and Denny? Denny looked straight into the camera, then walked off the set. He never came back. Stella didn’t have any proof, but she was pretty sure this must have been the last episode Denny took part in. He looked like a kid who was done. His expression was remarkably similar to the one she’d just seen on Marco’s face.
And what was that story? Unlike Dan Heller’s driving story, unlike the one she’d started thinking of as her own, this one wasn’t close to true. Sure, Denny had been a big kid, but neither he nor Marco played basketball. He never protected Marco from bullies. “Nothing was his” hardly fit the man whose house she’d cleaned.
Except that night, falling asleep, Stella couldn’t help but think that when she compared what she knew of Denny with that story, it seemed like Denny had set out to prove the story untrue. What would a person do if told as a child that nothing was his? Collect all the things. Leave his little brother to fend for himself. Fight it on every level possible.
Was it a freak occurrence that Denny happened to be listening when Uncle Bob told that story? Why was she assuming the story was about him at all? Maybe it was coincidence. There was nothing connecting the children to the stories except her own sense that they were connected, and Denny’s reaction on the day he quit.
She hadn’t heard hers when Uncle Bob told it, but she’d internalized it nonetheless. How much was true? She wasn’t a cuckoo bird. Her reinventions had never hurt anyone.
Marco called that night to ask if she wanted to grab one more meal before she left town, but she said she had too much to do before her flight. That was true, as was the fact that she didn’t want to see him again. Didn’t want to ask him if he’d watched the March 13 show. Didn’t want to tell him his brother had consciously refused him protection.
She should have gone straight to the airport in the morning, but the fan mail address she’d written down was in the same direction, if she took the back way instead of the highway. Why a show like that might get fan mail was a question for another time. This was strictly a trip to satisfy her curiosity. She drove through town, then a couple of miles past, into the network of county roads.
The mailbox stood full, overflowing, a mat of moldering envelopes around its cement base. A weather-worn “For Sale” sign had sunk into the soft ground closer to the drainage ditch. Stella turned onto the long driveway, and only after she’d almost reached the house did it occur to her that if she’d looked at the mail, she might have found his surname.
The fields on either side of the lane were tangled with weeds that didn’t look like they cared what season it was. The house, a tiny stone cottage, was equally weed-choked, but strangely familiar. If she owned this house, she’d never let it get like this, but it didn’t look like it belonged to anyone anymore. She tried a story on for size: “While I was visiting my parents, I went for a drive in the country, and I found the most darling cottage. My parents are getting older, and I had the thought that I should move closer to them. The place needed a little work, so I got it for a song.”
She liked that one.
Nobody answered when she knocked. The door was locked, and the windows were too dirty to see through, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that if she looked through he’d be sitting there, staring straight at her, waiting.
She walked around back and found the hill.
It was a funny little hill, not entirely natural looking, but what did she know? The land behind the house sloped gently upward, then steeper, hard beneath the grass but not rocky. From the slope, the cottage looked even smaller, the fields wilder, tangled, like something from a fairy tale. The view, too, felt strangely familiar.
She knew nothing more about the man who called himself Uncle Bob, but as she walked into the grass she realized this must be the hill from his stories, the stories he told when he wasn’t telling stories about the children. How did they go? She thought back to that first episode she’d watched in Denny’s basement.
Once upon a time, there was a boy whose family planted him in a hillside, so that he took over the entire hillside, like a weed. They dug me out of the hillside on my thirteenth birthday. It’s good to divide rhizomes to give them room to grow.
That story made her remember the notebook she’d taken from Denny’s house, and she rummaged for it in her purse. The notebook was alphabetical, printed in a nearly microscopic hand other than the page headings, dense. She found one for Dan Heller. She couldn’t decipher the whole story, but the first line was obviously Once upon a time, there was a little boy who wanted to go fast. She knew the rest. In blue pen, it said what she had said to Jeff the archivist: motorcycle wreck, alongside the date. That one was easy since she knew enough to fill in the parts she struggled to read. The others were trickier. There was no page for Marco, but Denny had made one for himself. It had Uncle Bob’s shadow-brother story but no update at the bottom. Nothing at all for the years between.
Who else had been on the show? Lee Pool had a page. So did Addie Chapel, who as far as Stella knew had followed in her mother’s footsteps and become a doctor. Chris Bethel, and beside him, Tina Bevins, the other dinosaur lover. If she spent enough time staring, maybe Denny’s handwriting would decipher itself.
She was afraid to turn to her own page. She knew it had to be there, on the page before Dan Heller, but she couldn’t bring herself to look, until she did. She expected this one, like Dan’s, like Denny’s own, to be easier to decipher because she knew how it would go.
October 30, 1982. Once upon a time, there was a little girl who didn’t know who she was. Many children don’t know who they will be, and that’s not unusual, but what was unusual in this case was that the girl was willing to trade who she was for who she could be, so she began to do just that. Little by little, she replaced herself with parts of other people she liked better. Parts of stories she wanted to live. Nobody lied like this girl. She believed her own stories so completely, she forgot which ones were true and which were false.
If you’ve ever heard of a cuckoo bird, they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, so those birds are forced to raise them for their own. This girl was her own cuckoo, laying stories in her own head, and the heads of those around her, until even she couldn’t remember which ones were true, or if there was anything left of her.
There was more. Another episode, maybe? She had no idea how many she’d been on, and her research had been shoddy. Maybe every story was serialized like the boy in the hill. It took her a while to make out the next bit.
November 20, 1982. Our cuckoo girl left the nest one day to spread her wings. When she returned, she didn’t notice that nobody had missed her. She named a place where she had been, and they accepted it as truth. She made herself up, as she had always done, convincing even herself in the process. Everything was true, or true enough.
Below that, in blue pen, a strange assortment of updates from her life, as observed by Denny. Marco’s eleventh birthday party, when she’d given him juggling balls. Graduation from middle school. The summer they’d both worked at the pool, and Marco’d gotten heatstroke and thrown up all the Kool-Aid they tried to put in him, Kool-Aid red, straight into the pool like a shark attack. The time she and Marco had tried making out on his bed, only he had started giggling, and she had gotten offended, and when she stood she tripped over a juggling ball and broke her toe. All the games their friends had played in Marco’s basement: I’ve Never, even though they all knew what everyone else had done; Two Truths and a Lie, though they had all grown up together and knew everything about each other; Truth or Dare, though everyone was tired of truth, truth was terrifying, everyone chose dare, always. The Batman premiere. The prom amoeba, the friends who went together, all of whom she’d lost touch with. High school graduation. Concrete memories, things she knew were as real as anything that had ever happened in her life. Denny shouldn’t have known about some of these things, but now she pictured him there, somewhere, holding this notebook, watching them, taking notes, always looking like he had something to say but he couldn’t say it.
Below those stories he’d written: Once there was a girl who got lost and when she found her way home she realized she’d arrived back without herself, and her parents didn’t even notice the difference. Which couldn’t be her story at all; she hadn’t been on the episodes he’d been on.
After graduation, he had no more updates on her. She paged forward, looking at the blue ink. Everyone had updates within the last year, everyone except for Denny, everyone who was still alive; the ones who weren’t had death dates. Everyone except her. She tried to imagine what from her adult life she would have added, given the chance, or what an internet search on her name would provide, or what her parents would tell someone who asked what she was doing. Surely there was something. Parents were supposed to be your built-in hype machines.
She pulled out her phone to call Marco, but the battery was dead. Just as well, since she was suddenly afraid to try talking to anyone at all. She returned to the notebook and flipped toward the back. U for Uncle Bob.
Once upon a time, there was a boy whose family planted him in a hillside, so that he took over the entire hillside, like a weed. They dug me out of the hillside on my thirteenth birthday. It’s good to divide rhizomes to give them room to grow.
This story was long, eight full pages in tiny script, with episode dates interspersed. At the end, in red ink, this address. She pictured Denny driving out here, exploring the cottage, looking up at the hill. If she ever talked to Marco again, she’d tell him that what he’d found in Denny’s closet wasn’t a shrine; it was Denny’s attempt to conjure answers to something unanswerable.
She put the notebook back in her purse and kept walking. Three quarters of the way up the hill she came to a large patch where the grass had been churned up. She put her hand in the soil and it felt like the soil grasped her hand back.
Her parents said she didn’t visit often enough, but now she couldn’t remember ever having visited them before, or them visiting her. She couldn’t remember if she’d ever left this town at all. She lived in Chicago, or did she? She’d told Marco as much, told him other things she knew not to be true, but what was true, then? What did she do for a living? If she left this hill and went to the airport, would she even have a reservation? If she caught her plane, would she find she had anything or anyone there at all? Where was there? She pulled her hand free and put it to her mouth: The soil tasted familiar.
“I walked down to the cottage that would be mine someday”—that felt nice, even if she wasn’t sure she believed it—“and then past the cottage, through the town, and into my parents’ house. They believed me when I said where I’d been. They fit me into their lives and only occasionally looked at me like they didn’t quite know how I’d gotten there.” That felt good. True. She sat in the dirt and leaned back on her hands, and felt the hill pressing back on them.
She could still leave: walk back to her rental car, drive to the airport, take the plane to the place where she surely had a career, a life, even if she couldn’t quite recall it. She thought that until she looked back at where the rental car should have been and realized it wasn’t there. She had no shoes on, and her feet were black with dirt, pebbled, scratched. She dug them into the soil, rooting with her toes.
How had Denny broken his story? He’d refused it. Whether his life was better or worse for it remained a different question. To break her story, she’d have to walk back down the hill and reconstruct herself the right way round. She thought of the cuckoo girl, the lost girl, the cuckoo girl, so many stories to keep straight.
The soil reached her forearms now, her calves. The top layer was sun-warmed, and underneath, a busy cool stillness made up of millions of insects, of the roots of the grass, of the rhizomes of the boy who had called this hillside home before she had. She’d walk back to town when she was ready, someday, maybe, but she was in no hurry. She’d heard worse stories than hers, and anyway, if she didn’t like it she’d make a new one, a better one, a true one.
“Two Truths and a Lie” copyright © 2020 by Sarah Pinsker
Art copyright © by Chris Buzelli